Using standards to drive learning without the high stakes testing:
If you know me very well, you know I am passionate about math. One of my greatest joys is to hear a student say the words “I love math”, and they don’t even have to be my student! Why does this statement elicit so much happiness? It stems from my belief that a huge percentage of a students’ overall success in math is dependent on their perception of whether or not they are actually good at math.
In an age where high stakes testing has become the driving force dictating what and how curriculum is taught, having the freedom to teach high quality curriculum aligned with standards, in a way that allows students to develop a love for the content, is truly a gift. For example, I was talking with a first year teacher this past weekend who is teaching Algebra I at a public middle school. I asked how it was going and what he thought of the program? He had many great things to say about the school and the students, but then mentioned his concern for the students. I thought this was a strange comment, so I asked what he meant? He explained, while his students were accelerated in math, he was worried they wouldn’t pass the state test because they are taking Algebra and Geometry, but the test would be based on 7th and 8th grade math curriculum. It was then I wondered if high stakes testing was missing the mark?
The goal of testing is to hold our schools accountable to a high standard of education and to assess students to see how much they know. Both of these are important components of education, so why did this teacher’s statement about testing sit so wrong with me? After thinking about it a little longer, I realized it highlights three main problems with testing as it is used today. First, standardized tests should be broad enough to give us a sampling of what students know, not so specific that we need to teach directly to them in order for students to pass them. Second, standardized tests only assess what students have memorized or remember. Lastly, high stakes testing creates anxiety about learning for both students and teachers.
This teacher’s statement related directly to all three problems. Instead of the state test encouraging high performing students toward higher level math, its narrow focus on specific standards or information the students are no longer using on a regular basis, encourages the teacher to limit new learning and teach content on the test instead. The fact that the school’s funding and the teacher’s pay could be affected by the outcome of the test further encourages teaching to the test. Lastly, the teacher’s overall perception of the year was clouded by worry over a single test.
At Hillside, we are fortunate to have the freedom to use standards to drive learning without having to worry about high stakes testing. We are able to use standards as they were meant to be used, as a guideline for the content we want students to learn. Plain and simple, Hillside does not teach to a test. We take the content of what is to be taught and use it to develop rich, project-based learning experiences that teach the content while asking students to solve a problem or to answer a question. The tests or assessments we use are aligned with what they have learned; to tell us what they learned and how they solved their question. During the process they get to collaborate, explore, and apply what they have learned in an engaging hands on way. We encourage them to search for answers, not memorize facts. Isn’t that what we want? Truly, what we all want are students who love learning and teachers who are filled with joy because of it. I don’t think there is a teacher, student or administrator that can say high stakes testing inspires these types of feelings.